Gerald Bourguet is a guest contributor from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State.
Goran Dragic grew up wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps. But a leg injury and his mother’s urging pointed him down the path toward eventually replacing Phoenix Suns legend Steve Nash.
The new starting point guard for the Suns began his athletic career on a soccer pitch in Slovenia, but his journey detoured to the hardwood of the NBA. This road would take him from Slovenia to Spain to Phoenix to Houston and back to Phoenix, but Dragic is finally where he wants to be.
“It’s just inside me,” he said. “Inside my blood. I love basketball.”
Dragic has settled into his new life in Phoenix, but his dreams weren’t always about playing in the NBA. Hailing from Ljubljana, the capital of a small country of about 2 million people, Dragic started off with a different sport that his father played – soccer.
Dragic played soccer for two years before an injury at age 11, which opened up his leg and required multiple staples, forcing him to quit.
“It’s a funny story,” he said. “I started first with soccer, then basketball. I got a leg injury and after that, my mom said, ‘No more soccer for you.’”
Dragic is the starting point guard for one of 30 teams that comprise the world’s greatest basketball league. But if not for that soccer injury, his friends and the urging of his mother, who was a basketball player growing up, Dragic might have ended up on a different career path.
“The kids in the neighborhood and one of my best friends were all playing basketball,” Dragic said. “My friend told me, ‘Come out, you should try playing basketball with us.’
“I went to one practice and I liked it and then everyone started talking about the NBA. I had never watched the NBA before, but from then on I was watching all the time.”
Although NBA games weren’t televised at a convenient time for most Slovenians, Dragic was hooked and would wake up at 3 a.m. just to watch. He grew up idolizing superstar guards like Jason Kidd, Allen Iverson, Nash and, of course, Michael Jordan.
“Every morning when I wake up, I can’t wait to go to the court to practice,” Dragic said. “Of course, some days you’re sore after a game or lazy, but I only need 15-20 minutes to get warm and after that I feel like a kid playing in the backyard with my friends again. Basketball is such a dynamic sport, it just completes me. It’s my life.”
Dragic played in a few Slovenian basketball leagues and the Spanish league before his dream started to become reality. In Slovenia, Dragic’s parents now do the same thing at 3 a.m. their son used to do: watch NBA basketball. Only this time, they’re watching their son live out his childhood dream.
Dragic said he misses his parents as well as his younger brother, Zoran, who recently signed to play basketball for a Spanish league team. But he’s comforted by the fact they’re watching him play every night.
“I think that was the right decision,” he understated with a laugh. “I think it was the right move picking basketball.”
In the 2008 NBA Draft, Dragic was drafted 45th overall by the San Antonio Spurs, but his rights were quickly traded to the Suns. His dream had finally come true, but with a new country and a new style of basketball came a lot of adjustments.
“It was hard getting used to it at first,” Dragic said. “Different culture, different food. I didn’t speak English very well either.
“From the basketball standpoint, it was tough because it’s faster and stronger here than in Europe. So I had trouble with that. The first year I struggled, but the second year it got better.”
Dragic played as Nash’s backup in Phoenix for two and a half years, but even then it was apparent the Suns were on to something.
In Game 3 of the 2010 Western Conference Semifinals, Dragic established himself a fan favorite by leading a Suns comeback over the Spurs, the team that originally drafted him. Of his 26 points, 23 came in the fourth quarter of a game the helped Phoenix eventually sweep one of its bitter rivals.
“When I’m hot, my eyes can zoom to the basket,” Dragic said. “And that night, the basket was as huge as a pool. I had that feeling that if I threw up the ball from halfcourt I could score.”
Despite the magic of that night, in 2011, Dragic was traded to the Houston Rockets along with the potential of replacing Nash.
Little did anyone realize Dragic’s road through Houston would soon lead back to Phoenix.
Returning to the Suns after becoming a restricted free agent this summer, Dragic is coming off a breakout season with the Rockets. He started 28 games, including the last 26 of the season filling in for the injured Kyle Lowry. During that time, he posted impressive averages of 18 points, 8.4 assists and 1.8 steals.
When he returned to US Airways Arena to discuss signing a contract with the Suns, Dragic was met by a line of employees and fans holding signs that read, “Welcome back, Goran!” and, “Come back home!”
Dragic said the moment only reaffirmed his hope of moving back to a familiar city.
“Phoenix is my second home and it brought old memories back of when we made (Western) Conference Finals,” he said. “I was really emotional and surprised that there were a lot of people outside the arena cheering for me.
“I have a lot of friends here and I started my NBA career here. This organization, this city and the people here gave me a lot and I so I just try to repay them for it.”
On his days off, Dragic likes to relax with his girlfriend Maja, who he’s been dating for four years. Dragic said Maja, who is also from Slovenia, helped make Phoenix feel more like home.
“It’s much easier for me now because my girlfriend is here and she’s cooking for me,” Dragic said. “She’s a really good cook. It’s not the same as mom’s, but still it’s great.”
Off the court, Dragic is just a simple guy who can usually walk through the streets of Phoenix without being noticed because of his smaller stature. But even when he’s not in the gym practicing, Dragic’s life is still fixated on that small orange ball.
“When we have a day off I just try to relax, be at home and take a nap, try to get my body right for the next game,” he said. “I just try to go with my girlfriend to see movies, go to Fashion Square. I have a lot of stuff to do but the most important thing is to try to get my body right for the next game.”
Filling the shoes of a future NBA Hall of Famer is no easy task. So instead of trying to replace his old mentor, Dragic has only one job now that he’s back with the Phoenix Suns: be Goran Dragic.
“He was here before and he really understands what I want in a point guard,” Suns Head Coach Alvin Gentry said. “The big thing that I try to make him understand is that he’s not here to replace Steve Nash, he’s here to play like Goran Dragic plays. So I think because of that he’s much more relaxed and he’s playing with much more confidence.”
But Dragic’s success in a starting role hasn’t gone to his head. If anything, it’s reaffirmed his emphasis on consistency.
“I know that last year I was only a starter about 30 games,” he said. “But this season’s going to be the whole season of 82 games. So I’ll just try to be solid on defense and offense and try to play for my teammates.”
On a team with a lot of new and young faces, Gentry said Jared Dudley and Jermaine O’Neal have stepped up as vocal leaders for a Suns team without veterans Nash and Grant Hill. But he admitted that signing a four-year deal allows “the Dragon” to bring his particular skill set to a squad in need of a quality starting point guard.
“I think he’s very athletic, unbelievably fast with the ball up the court, his decision-making has gotten a ton better and his shooting has improved,” Gentry said. “So those are the areas I just want him to be himself and play the way he’s capable of playing.”
How Dragic works with Marcin Gortat on the pick-and-roll this season will also be crucial to turning Phoenix’s 7-12 record around. Nash and Gortat working screens became the team’s bread and butter last season.
Dragic said it’s been a learning process, but they’re steadily building better chemistry.
“I still have to learn what his game is,” he said. “I know he’s really good when he sets screens and pops to the basket. Every practice is better and better.”
Despite the learning curve, Dragic has easily been the Suns’ most consistent player on both ends of the floor with aggressive offense, evident playmaking ability and vastly improved defense. Through 18 games, Dragic is averaging 15 points, seven assists and two steals in 32 minutes per game, which are all team-high numbers.
He often jumpstarts the Suns’ offense at the beginning of games and could produce even better numbers if he learns to avoid foul trouble.
Dragic will gain the recognition those statistics deserve, but there’s still an undeniable amount of pressure with the starting job in his hands. He sees it differently.
“When I first got drafted here, everyone was asking me, ‘Why don’t you try to play like Steve Nash?’ I mean, nobody can,” he said. “He’s one of the best point guards in the league and I realized when I got traded that I have to stick with my game, I have to play my game. I’m going to try to do that this year and just try to be myself and play Goran Dragic’s game.”
Although hopes are high for Dragic in a starting role, not many experts predict the Suns to go far this season. So instead of focusing on individual expectations for himself, Dragic wants to set the bar higher for his team.
“We have to play every game 100 percent,” the point guard said. “We’re a young team and we have to battle every night. I know that a lot of people don’t expect us to be in the playoffs this year, but why not?
“This is my goal this season. We have to start strong and finish strong.”
No matter what happens on the court, Dragic is thankful for the opportunities this long road to the NBA has given him.
“I’m most thankful that I’m healthy, that I can play basketball and do the one thing that I really love,” he said. “I try to be myself, try to get better as a person and as a basketball player.
“A lot of guys, they have money and are set for life, but if you’re not happy, it doesn’t matter. Right now, I’m really happy with my girlfriend, with my family and I think that’s the most important thing in life.”